Does the sun affect technology?
There’s to be a total eclipse of the sun by the moon on March 20, 2015, 1:00 AM PDT. The path of the eclipse, will mostly be over the North Atlantic Ocean, not a densely populated area. However, you can watch it live online in a series of webcasts. Watch a Slooh Community Observatory webcast of the total eclipse of the sun through Slooh directly, or from Space.com.
The sun being eclipsed is dramatic. Even emotional. Slooh astronomer Bob Berman said in a statement, “Nothing — and I mean absolutely nothing in nature — is as powerful and spectacular as the totality of a solar eclipse. Sadly, they only happen every 360 years on average for any given location, which means that a very low percentage of the population has ever seen one.”
But while the sun being totally covered up is dramatic, there is as much drama and greater technological consequence from solar flares. Solar flares vary in size, small to large to extra-large or X-class. An X-class solar flare erupted March 11, 2015, with minor inconvenience, including some high frequency radio blackouts. It was the first solar flare of this class for the year.
NASA notes, “Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however — when intense enough — they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.”
Astronomy Now posts a link to the NASA video of the sun flare, and Space Weather Prediction Center, of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has some intriguing information on the effects of sun flares.
In 1859, our planet was hit with the largest solar flare on record. Known as the Carrington Event, English astronomer Richard Carrington actually watched the beginning of the flare on the sun through special equipment. In subsequent days auroras could be seen in the north all around the world, and as far south as the Caribbean. The only technology that was affected was the downing of telegraph systems throughout Europe and North America. Some telegraph operators received an electric shock, some offices burned down from sparks and many devices continued to function even after being disconnected. If such a flare struck today, the world would find the event not merely an inconvenient oddity as did the folk of 1859, but a chaotic disruption of technology world-wide.
What makes a solar flare like this so dangerous for our modern society is that, when the massive geomagnetic storm collides with the Earth’s magnetosphere, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is created, which effectively disables all of the Earth’s electronics.
Wikipedia records a first-hand account of the phenomenon from the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser. Amazingly, the event lasted several days:
Those who happened to be out late on Thursday night had an opportunity of witnessing another magnificent display of the auroral lights. The phenomenon was very similar to the display on Sunday night, though at times the light was, if possible, more brilliant, and the prismatic hues more varied and gorgeous. The light appeared to cover the whole firmament, apparently like a luminous cloud, through which the stars of the larger magnitude indistinctly shone. The light was greater than that of the moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested. Between 12 and 1 o’clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance.
The sun continues on a daily basis to spew solar flares of varying sizes, at times approaching the magnitude of the Carrington Event. NASA published a study in the journal, Space Weather, titled, “A major solar eruptive event in July 2012.” The study describes how a powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) tore through Earth orbit on July 23, 2012. Fortunately, Earth wasn’t there. The storm cloud instead hit the STEREO-A spacecraft.
“I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did,” says Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.
Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences details the consequences of extreme solar storms. A similar storm today could have a catastrophic effect, with the total economic impact potentially exceeding $2 trillion, or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.
“In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event,” says Baker. “The only difference is, it missed.”
In February 2014, physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. published a paper in Space Weather titled, “On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events.” In it, he analysed records of solar storms going back 50+ years. By extrapolating the frequency of ordinary storms to the extreme, he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm would hit Earth in the next ten years. The answer: 12%.
“Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct,” says Riley. “It is a sobering figure.”
On November 14, 2011, CNN published an article at their website, Solar flares won’t kill Earth, NASA says. The opening line stated, “The year 2012 is almost here. And so is the end of the world, if you believe myths about the Mayan calendar and certain science fiction movies and books.” Then they went on to note that solar flare activity would increase and peak between 2012 and 2014. “This has some people linking the flares to the End Times. But NASA scientists assure us that solar flares won’t destroy the Earth.”
250 days later after the confident statement that Earth would not suffer lethal damage by solar flares came the CME that “just missed.” Seven months after the near miss came the calculation that there is a 12% chance of the next Carrington Class solar flare event striking earth by 2024. No one really knows. Once every 360 years, more or less…